Transforming the songs of a master pop composer into an arsenal of instrumentals might seem like career suicide, right? After all, Nick Lowe has been, for decades, one of rock music’s most cunning and articulate lyricists.
So who in their right performance minds would discard his words when fashioning a Lowe tribute record? Why, Los Straitjackets, the masked men of instrumental rock ’n’ roll, of course.
What is so arresting in listening to “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets” is how the record celebrates the other brilliant distinctions of Lowe’s songs: their wonderful melodic design and efficient sense of songcraft.
There is kinship to consider, too. Lowe and Los Straitjackets, label mates on the indie Yep Roc Records, have undertaken collaborative holiday tours over the past three years.
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But the bond goes far deeper on “What’s So Funny.” Los Straitjackets’ last few albums have tempered their familiar twang, surf and retro-related sound into broader musical platforms. In the stylistic depth of Lowe’s melodies, they have been provided prime rocket fuel to carry on that journey.
Then again, Lowe’s recent music has mellowed considerably since his power-pop beginnings in the 1970s. Some of the most attractive moments of “What’s So Funny” come from the songsmith’s newer albums. On “Checkout Time” (from Lowe’s 2011 gem “The Old Magic”), Los Straitjackets summon a percolating blend of bossa nova percussion, guitar twang and prime pop wistfulness.
Similarly, “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” (from the way-underrated 2001 Lowe album “The Convincer”) breezes along with guitar harmony from Eddie Angel, Danny Amis and Greg Townson to provide an easy but pronounced glow to the tune’s lovely lyrical charm.
Then on “You Inspire Me,” the pace slows to a gentle nocturnal crawl that sounds as if it was fashioned in the early ’60s, even though Lowe penned the tune in 1998.
The album has a ball with vintage Lowe music, too. His 1984 nugget “Half a Boy and Half a Man” retains the song’s inherent celebratory feel, while the rootsy joyride abandon of the album-closing “Heart of the City” shifts Los Straitjackets into prime rockish overdrive.
Place it all these treats together and you have a prime platter to ignite the summer with.